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How to Find and Keep Health and Fitness Professionals

One of the most challenging aspects of running a fitness or recreation business is how to hire and retain an educated, talented and professional team to serve your members. One thing that many facility owners and operators often overlook is the fact that 10 pounds weighs 10 pounds regardless of whether you are at a high-priced health club, a pay-as-you-go boutique studio or a budget-friendly, non-profit recreation center. What makes the difference is a friendly environment that is welcoming to members, which largely comes down to the culture of your team.

The biggest factor to running a successful fitness operation that delivers consistent dividends and develops raving fans is not your equipment or your programming — it’s your staff. The professionals responsible for coaching the group fitness classes and instructing your members on how to use the equipment properly to reach their desired goals are your most valuable asset. According to the late efficiency expert Stephen Covey, “No one ever plans to fail, they simply fail to plan.” In fitness, success does not just happen by accident. Running a profitable business requires having a specific plan for recruiting, developing and retaining your fitness staff.

Yes, it’s true that many health and fitness professionals, which include personal trainers, group fitness instructors and health coaches, do what they do because they have a passion for helping others. However, you can’t rely on that passion alone to supply the motivation individuals need to stay with you as a long-term employee. Health club and fitness facility operators invest a lot of money, time and effort on marketing to new members as well as keeping the existing members happy. But how many resources are focused on the planning required to recruit and retain the professionals you need to keep your members happy?

As a 20-year veteran of the fitness industry who has held positions from floor trainer to international presenter, I have had the opportunity to work with facilities around the world. Some do an excellent job of developing and retaining talent, while others are mired in mediocrity and constant turnover. Rather than simply give you my opinion on what may or may not work for staff development, the following 12 recommendations were derived from more than 35 comments and recommendations offered by my extensive network of health and fitness professionals. Use this information to develop a recruiting and retention plan for your specific needs.

      1. 1.First, consider the language you use. Refer to your health and fitness professionals as team members, as opposed to employees or staff. A sense of shared purpose, where everyone is working toward the same goal, is incredibly important. Darren Blakely is a former co-owner of the UFIT Studio in Singapore now working as a personal trainer in Phuket, Thailand. He recommends creating a system in which team members participate in revenue sharing or, if possible, in ownership stakes in the facility. In his experience, team members who are compensated based on the success of the entire business are committed to the success of the team.

      2. 2.Keep your team members informed of the bigger picture, urges Farel Hruska, director of education and culture for Chuze Fitness, a rapidly growing chain in the western United States. She believes that sharing the vision of the organization and plans for future growth help her people buy into a sense of purpose. Rafal Tokicz, a personal trainer at the Equinox Sports Club in Washington, D.C., agrees. From his point of view, it is important that leaders communicate often, have fun meet-ups in and out of the gym to foster team-building, and get to know their people and their interests, not just their names and monthly revenue goals.

      3. 3.It is essential that managers take a general interest in the success of individual team members because their success is your success. “The reason my team chose to work with me is that I took a genuine interest in what they wanted to accomplish,” explains Greg Vaughn, CEO of Premier Fitness in Louisville, Ky. “The people I’ve invested the most time in — helping them to develop their own vision, select a course for their career and establish successful habits — have become my greatest assets.”

      4. 4.Education. Education. Education. Have a good education program. Many personal trainers got into the field because they enjoy learning about exercise science and sharing that information with their clients. Former manager of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, Geralyn Coopersmith once said, “Our best learners are our best earners.” Their top performing trainers were engaged in education programs and used that knowledge to develop personalized solutions for their clients. Consider developing a team of master trainers, investing in new fitness equipment that comes with an education program, or working with a group such as the American Council on Exercise to deliver a workshop that can upskill your team to deliver solutions to your members.

      5. 5.Developing a team of internal educators is one way to engage your fitness staff to become more loyal to your company. Not all health and fitness professionals want to move into a management role; instead, some may be interested in developing the skills to teach workshops to other health and fitness professionals. Having an internal education program is one way to create that career path. If your organization does not have the budget to have a dedicated education program, consider having regular team meetings where team members are involved in teaching one another and sharing ideas, suggests Adrienne Gabel, CEO of Fitness Tools Now, an education company based out of Wheaton, Ill. Involving your fitness team in the education process, explains Gabel, allows them to “shine in front of their peers,” while sharing ideas for how to design and deliver successful exercise programs to members.

      6. 6.Many health and fitness professionals get into the field because of the autonomy that comes from working with clients and creating their own schedule. Some will like working in the early mornings, while others will prefer late afternoons and evenings; whichever your team prefers, support their lives outside of the gym. Coach trainers on how to schedule client sessions so they are not working in long blocks of time in the morning, at noon and in the evening because long hours lead to burnout and turnover. It is important to have proper coverage on the floor at all times, but working with your team to develop a schedule that fits their needs and interests can help ensure they remain with you for the long term. “In my opinion, the work-life balance is critical,” says Tokicz. “Yes, I like to work, but I also like to be with my family (which includes young children) and it’s important for a manager to recognize that and help make it possible.”

      7. 7.Allow part-time health and fitness professionals to play a role in your operating plan. It is understandable that many facilities want team members to be committed to a full-time schedule, but don’t overlook those professionals who only want to do it part-time. Adhering to a full-time requirement eliminates those part-time health and fitness professionals who can consistently deliver eight to 12 sessions a week (32 to 48 a month), which can significantly contribute to the facility’s bottom line. “A flexible schedule is extremely important to me,” says Alina Ruhail, a personal trainer at Madfit in New Delhi, India. “I prefer the ability to manage my time the way I want over a job that pays more per hour.”

      8. 8.When looking for new equipment or programs to invest in, find ways to engage your team in the decision-making process. Ultimately, it’s your team of trainers and instructors who are the ones responsible for delivering the solutions you invest in, so let them be a part of the process. When you’re considering options for new equipment or programs, ask for their feedback. Are there any new pieces of equipment or programs they would like to deliver to members? Does your facility have equipment that is outdated, outsized, underused or in need of constant repair? If your team is a part of the decision-making process, they are more likely to feel a sense of ownership in ensuring the successful delivery to the end user. “Because they are the ones interacting with our customers, we truly value and appreciate what our fitness team has to say about our programming and involve them in the planning process,” says Christy Giroux, co-owner of Prime Fitness in Gaithersburg, Md.

      9. 9.While health and fitness professionals are passionate about helping people, they also deserve to earn a respectable income. New York City−based fitness-industry veteran Ted Recitas suggests providing opportunities for your team members to earn more per hour by developing solutions that allow them to coach small-group fitness programs. You can work with your accounting team to develop the general ledger (GL) and payroll codes for small group programs that pay the trainer a percentage of all revenue earned as an hourly rate over the course of the program. For example, a good trainer can easily find 10 people to commit to an eight-week program that features two sessions per week for a total 16 sessions. If the price is $320 for the program (which is $20 per person per session), the gross revenue is $3200. A trainer receiving 60% of the revenue will be paid $1920 over the course of the 16 sessions. Amortized over 16 sessions, that $1920 translates to $120 per hour, which is a rate most health and fitness professionals would welcome.

      10. 10.When it comes time to recruiting and hiring new members of your fitness team, there are a few different strategies you can implement. Recitas recommends networking with local colleges and fitness certification programs to hire students right when they graduate. This is a smart approach, because hiring new trainers straight out of an education program means they are excited to start a career and you can provide them with the specific coaching they need to become successful health and fitness professionals in your business.

      11. 11.Another great approach is to look around your facility for other employees or club members who may want to become a personal trainer or fitness instructors and offer the education or opportunity for them to make that transition. “Some of the best team members I’ve had in my department are those that moved from maintenance and the front desk,” says Recitas. “This helps our entire team become vested in the company because they can see multiple career path opportunities within the organization.” Tracy Haas Riley from Bloomington, Ill., takes a slightly different approach. She recognizes that some of her most committed members might be interested in working in fitness, but simply don’t know how to get started. You can help them start an entirely new career.

      12. 12.Finally, word-of-mouth referrals can be an effective way to recruit new professionals to join your team. Offering incentives, whether financial or club services, for having your existing team members refer new candidates can yield valuable new team members. And, because they already have a friend on your team, they know the expectations for production, making it easier for them to adapt to your culture.

With the explosive growth of boutique studios and fitness centers, today’s health and fitness professionals have a wide range of opportunities when it comes to finding employment. Not every solution is going to work for your needs and it may take some trial and error to find what is best suited for your environment and organizational culture. Use these recommendations, many of which came straight from the professionals you are interested in retaining, to effectively add to your team development plan.

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